As stories about sons and fathers go, they can range from the Biblical to mythological - where patricide was the norm - to the searing contemporary take on fatherhood in the new movie The Place Beyond the Pines by Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance.
From early on, one senses that patriarchal legacies are about to shatter or implode. Still, well-intentioned agendas are set, as when the heavily inked stunt motorcyclist known as Handsome Luke, played by a kinetic Ryan Gosling, says over a drink, "My father wasn't around and look how I turned out."
Luke makes what little cash he has riding motorcycles around in circles inside of a steel cage at county fairs or whatever will have him. A year after the opening scene - an impressive tracking shot that follows him from his dressing room to inside his spherical arena - he learns he has a one-year-old son named Jason by Romina (Eva Mendes), a Schenectady, New York waitress. They'd hooked up on his previous gig in town and she now lives with her African-American boyfriend and her mother. (His race and her dubious immigration status are key to a later troubling exchange.)
He convinces himself he's going to turn around his own parenting by being a good provider, albeit one with a faulty moral compass. He begins robbing banks, his adrenaline doubly pumped by the thrill of the steal and the quick getaway. Romina, though, finds the money (and Luke himself) seductive enough to jeopardize her relationship and set up prickly custody issues for years to come - were the scrapbook not so presciently doomed and dog-eared.
When Bradley Cooper enters the film (50 minutes in) as Avery, a new cop fresh out of law school, he's about to make a split-second decision that will forever haunt his conscience. He's a newbie and stealthily ambitious. Yet as a result of that decision, he's dubbed a hero by both media and corrupt co-workers (led by Ray Liotta as a slithery racist), uneasily does he wears the crown. Avery also has a one-year-0ld son, AJ, with his wife (Rose Byrne, who's quite good in a thankless role), who isn't as sold as her husband is on his inflated sense of self.
The movie's third act is set fifteen years later when Jason (Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen) are both seniors at the local high school. Neither boy's path has been predictable, a point Cianfrance (who co-wrote the movie with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder) layers on without any unnecessary gloss or forced effort. The boys are polar opposites - AJ's a snob and a player while Jason owns the tag "loner stoner" - yet what they don't know when they meet is that they are powerfully bonded by events in their past they haven't begun to absorb.
The Place Beyond the Pines | 2:20 | Dir. Derek Cianfrance | Click here for theater show times.